The ‘sons of the conquerors’

The ‘sons of the conquerors’

Failure is doomed to be an “orphaned child,” but in fact Turkey’s foreign policy failure has many fathers. It has been argued (including by myself) that it was a mistake for Turkey to adopt a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy that pushed it to make over-ambitious political moves, including engagement in a proxy war in Syria. It was a mistake for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to overestimate its power and underestimate the complexity of both Middle Eastern and global politics. This mistake backfired very badly not only in Syria but also on all fronts of foreign relations.   Nevertheless, the over-ambitious neo-Ottoman trend was not only based on the rise of Ottomanist/nationalist/Islamist dreams in domestic politics, but also by Western encouragement. It is also a longer story than simply starting with the AKP’s coming to power in 2002. The new foreign policy line started to rise right after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, initiated by the right-wing liberal leader Turgut Özal with Western encouragement and support. Turkey was first encouraged to take an active role in the so-called “Turkic world” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its domination in the Turkic republics. This was also the time when Turkey started to get involved in post-Soviet politics, from the Balkans to Chechnya and the Caucasus, again encouraged by its allies and friends. 

After 9/11, Turkey’s new conservative/Islamist government was made into a bigger “role model” for Islamic moderation, with the invention of so-called “Muslim democracy.” Finally, Turkey was pushed to engage in Syria by its Western allies, who fanned the flames in Syria in order to achieve regime change and to curb the rising Iranian influence in the region. In the end, this policy turned out to be a disaster, but Turkey still insisted on going it alone in Syria. A bit like in the Cyprus affair, Turkey was invited to engage, but ended up overdoing it and bringing about confrontation not only with its new “enemies” but also with old friends and allies. 

Recently, Ankara has been trying to change the tide by accommodating its foreign policy to its new enemies, namely the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Russia and Iran - perhaps at the expense of losing some friends like Saudi Arabia. Thank God, Turkey’s old Western allies have no problem with this rapprochement concerning Syria, but Western tolerance for friendship with Russia does not extend to relations with NATO. Therefore, Turkey’s foreign policy change still faces some very steep challenges.  

A few days ago, Turkey staged a military campaign in northern Syria supposedly aimed at deterring ISIL from its border area. We all know that the real target was to deter the Syrian sister party of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), from crossing west of the Euphrates and creating a “Kurdish corridor” all along the Turkish border as a fait accompli. 

So far, Turkey’s interference has been given international legitimacy and it will not necessarily amount to indulging in another foreign policy misadventure. Nevertheless, radical Islamist/nationalist supporters of the government are eager to portray the whole affair as a “conquest” and “the return of Turkey’s power.” I hope the government will not delude itself that this has been a big victory, as Turkey’s rulers and their nationalist/Islamist supporters have deluded themselves with dreams of reviving Ottoman power for decades.

Thankfully, nowadays Western allies and friends are not in the mood of encouraging Turkey’s nostalgic dreams, and books with titles like Hugh Pope’s “Sons of the Conquerors” are largely out of print.